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Archie Griffin, Tough Trumps Size

"Ohio's Autumn Harvest" will be in bookstore early next year. In the meantime, here's a sample of the first chapter featuring Archie Griffin.

The greatest college football career of the 20th century endured the most disastrous of beginnings. True freshman Archie Griffin was called on during garbage time of a mundane, 21-0 win over Iowa in Ohio State’s 1972 season opener. Despite his status as a high school All-American, Griffin figured he would have to wait his turn like any other Buckeye.

He was stunned that his turn arrived so quickly. Backup quarterback Dave Purdy called an 18-sweep in the huddle. When Griffin sprang to his left for the pitch, he shot a glance at the yawning hole in front of him, big yardage awaited. By the time he refocused, the pitch was upon him, and then on the ground. Purdy recovered, but Griffin was yanked after his only snap.

“I remember that play ... the ball was pitched down about my knees, maybe a little bit lower, but I should’ve had it,” Griffin recalled. “I couldn’t find the handle on it and Dave recovered it. We lost five yards and I came out right after that. It wasn’t much, but if I had concentrated on the ball instead of the daylight I saw ahead of me, I could have handled it all right. It’s a game I’d just as soon forget.” 1

It was the first season in more than 20 years freshmen were eligible, but Hayes was loath to trust unproven players. Add the fumble to the mix and chances for another opportunity anytime soon seemed remote.

“My only goal was to make the varsity, so Woody sends me in — and I fumbled ” Griffin said. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought I’d never play again.” 2

A week later against North Carolina, Griffin got a second chance when the offense struggled. Looking for a spark, Hayes yelled for Griffin. Shell-shocked, he raced toward the field when teammates began screaming at him. He had forgotten his helmet. Archie clutched his headgear and zoomed onto the field. Once he found his helmet and secured the football, talent took over.

“Right away, as soon as he got his hands on the ball, you just knew that unless he got hurt, our tailback problems had been solved for the next four years,” Hayes said. 3

Nobody appreciated toughness more than Hayes. It’s the most important element in football. It can inspire and elevate a team, despite shortages in size or speed. One can argue whether the trait can be taught or learned, but football fans — particularly players and coaches — know it when they see it and grimly admire it.

Toughness was never more apparent in an Ohio high school football player than in Archie Griffin — and it came in an unlikely package. At 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, he looked nothing like an athlete who would transform Ohio State football. But he did.

Indeed, before the Eastmoor High School graduate arrived, Hayes traditionally bludgeoned Big Ten foes with hammer-like fullbacks, including Bob White, Bob Ferguson and Jim Otis. The formula fed five national championships and six conference crowns between 1954 and 1970. But Griffin’s skill set and determination forced Hayes to alter his offense into an electrifying tailback-oriented attack.

“The one lesson that (Eastmoor coach Bob Stuart) imparted that stuck with me throughout my life was, ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,’ ” Griffin said. “It was such a memorable message and something that stuck with me, because at every step of my career people doubted I would contribute because I wasn’t a big guy.

“When I chose Ohio State, a lot of people told me I’d never play, because Woody favored big fullbacks and I wouldn’t get a shot. The same thing once I got to the NFL, people said I was too small to play and contribute. But at all those steps I had Coach Stuart’s words in my mind. I knew that if I worked hard and was dedicated and disciplined, I would be able to succeed no matter what.”

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